Top critical review
on December 12, 2008
Once a famous cowboy and dispatch rider for the US Cavalry, Frank T. Hopkins has ended up a self-loathing drunk starring in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show alongside Annie Oakley. Haunted by the Native slaughter he witnessed at Wounded Knee, and hiding a secret of his own, Hopkins is given a chance to redeem himself when a wealthy sheik invites him to enter the annual Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. Not really confident, Hopkins initially agrees to the race because he has nothing better to do, but it soon becomes a race for his life. Since participation prior to 1890 had been restricted to only the finest Bedouin families, the pompous competitors see the American's entry as "sacrilege" and are eager to sabotage his chances.
The weathered and virile Viggo Mortensen, riding high after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays Hopkins as a soft-spoken and humble man. With a cloud of sadness hanging over him, Hopkins' only friend is his "painted" mustang, Hidalgo. Mortensen is able to fully convey the bond they share, and is completely believable as the real-life hero.
Others in the cast include Omar Sharif as Sheik Riyadh, Zuleikha Robinson as his "worthless" daughter, Elizabeth Berridge as Annie Oakley, and J.K. Simmons as Buffalo Bill Cody.
The screenplay is a little weak, lacking emotion and never bothering to explain the Bedouin perspective. Screenwriter John Fusco (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) is clearly an equine buff, but he spends too much time setting up the cliched human characters. As a result, the plot merely trots along, even after the race has begun. Thankfully, despite its inevitable outcome, the movie does offer a surprising and touching denouement.
Directed by Joe Johnston, whose previous works include the duds Jurassic Park III and The Rocketeer, Hidalgo's journey unfolds in a disjointed manner. When Hopkins tries to outrun a sandstorm, what could have been a suspenseful sequence is quickly blown aside. The same thing occurs when a swarm of locusts charge over the magnificent dunes but quickly vanish, and again when a pair of ravenous cheetahs are similarly dispensed with.
Nevertheless, Hidalgo is a satisfying story of determination that is suitable for the entire family. Showcasing the beauty of horses, the film makes one yearn for more tales of the Old West that speak of justice, pride and dignity. Rating: 6 out of 10.